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Copyright 2001 Ha'aretz

October 31, 2001

HEADLINE: Not Resting in Peace

BYLINE: Yair Sheleg

As long as the bodies of missing soldiers are not brought home, their families know no comfort.

The news earlier this week that the three soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah last year were very likely dead, returned Hadassah Fink to 1986, and the case of her son Yosef.

Indeed, the similarities with the case of her son and his friend Rahamim Alsheikh, are chilling. Fink and Alsheikh were kidnapped by Hezbollah in February 1986, while serving in the Givati Brigade in Lebanon. For five years, the families believed they were alive, until then IDF chief rabbi Gad Navon told them in 1991 that new intelligence had led the army to believe the two soldiers were actually dead.

Then, as now, the army didn't give the families the information that led to this bleak conclusion, lest intelligence sources be compromised. Only five years later were the bodies of Fink and Alsheikh returned, in a July 1996 deal involving the release of 45 Hezbollah fighters and the bodies of 123 more.

"When we were told the boys were dead, we had mixed feelings," says Hadassah Fink. "On the one hand, we were relieved because there was an end to the mystery that had been plaguing us, and we knew that at least the boys weren't suffering anymore - all the while we believed and hoped they were alive, we worried about the conditions of their captivity. On the other hand, it was difficult to accept a final conclusion that ended all our hopes.

"My husband and I had different reactions to the announcement. He immediately accepted it and began mourning the boy. I refused to accept what they said without proof. I wanted them to give me at least something so I could believe it was final. My husband took it as it was, and said the chief rabbi, who was known for being very pedantic, wouldn't have told us the boys were gone unless it was definite.

"I allowed myself five more years of illusion that maybe he was alive, that he would suddenly show up. I only began to mourn in 1996, when the bodies were returned."

Now, Hadassah Fink is convinced they are in the best position of all the MIA families because "our boy is with us and he can't be hurt anymore."

Fink's story shows how hard it is for the families of MIA soldiers who are believed dead but whose final resting place is unknown. Although the final determination of death puts an end to the persistent hope that the missing soldier will one day suddenly reappear, it can also give a sense of relief about what happened. And yet, if the final resting place is unknown, some faint hope remains that the official intelligence assessments will be proved wrong.

Hadassah Fink has experienced the anguish before; her father disappeared toward the end of World War II, and his body has never been recovered. "The uncertainty is maddening. As children, we were always worried for our mother, who remarried, that our father would show up. But with our son, at least the matter was clear-cut."

As Fink's story shows, there can be different reactions to the news even within a family, let alone between all the families involved. "For both families, us and the Alsheikhs, the immediate significance of the announcement the boys were gone was that we stopped all our diplomatic activity trying to find out what happened to them. But we didn't mourn at the same time. We only sat shiva [Jewish mourning period] after the bodies were returned."

Shlomo Dror, the Defense Ministry spokesman, says the defense establishment has 420 names of soldiers who are missing, presumed dead, but whose location is not known. That number fluctuates as new discoveries are made by the Defense Ministry unit that investigates cases of missing soldiers dating back to the War of Independence. Just this week, as the announcement came of the deaths of the three kidnapped soldiers, a full military ceremony was held for two pilots who went down in their plane 48 years ago, and whose bodies were never recovered.

Eliezer Reisner and his navigator Yehuda Katz crashed into the waters off Atlit in August 1953. Katz's family already knew what it was like to mourn without a grave. Their oldest boy, Dubi, was killed in 1971 during an Egozi regiment operation in Lebanon. He was eventually buried in Kiryat Shaul, when the body was returned. His sister, Rachel Katz Zuckerman, recalls how difficult it is not knowing: "The most difficult thing when there's no grave is that everything is up in the air. As much as you know there's no chance he's alive, the fact there's no sign, and no body, makes it difficult to accept he's gone."

When Dubi was killed, his mother Hannah, who was already a war widow, wanted to inscribe on his tombstone the name of his father, as he did not have a grave. That way, a visit to Dubi's grave would also be a visit to his father's.

Tragically, the widow and bereaved mother didn't get to see Yehuda Katz's body buried; she passed away four months ago. Her sister-in-law says, "It's clear that only now we have closed the circle of my fallen brother, but it is still difficult because I only received word about Yehuda last week. The feelings are still fresh and all 48 years have fallen on me, with all the memories and the pain. I think that it will take some time, but in the end I will feel relieved."

Tombstones at Mt. Herzl of missing soldiers deemed dead. Aryeh Mualem, who runs the Defense Ministry's unit for commemorating soldiers, says that to help the families of soldiers whose final resting place is not known, the military cemeteries have collective tombs with the names of the fallen inscribed. Unlike normal military graves, which have the grave itself and a tombstone "pillow" with the soldier's name and details inscribed on it, these group graves are marked only with the information of each of the missing soldiers. Instead of the words "Here is buried," the stones read "In memory of the soldier."

Of the 420 soldiers known to be missing and dead but without a final resting place, 300 are remembered in the military cemetery on Mt. Herzl in Jerusalem. Every year, a state ceremony is held at Mt. Herzl on Adar 7, the traditional Hebrew calendar's anniversary of the death of Moses, whose final resting place is also not known.

For now, the names of the soldiers whose deaths were announced yesterday, will be added to that memorial. But one day, the families hope, if the boys don't miraculously appear alive, then at least their bodies will be returned, so they can finally have a resting place, and the families can finally have some peace.

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